David Siev has called his documentary “Bad Axe” a love letter to his hometown.
The documentary, on the short list for an Oscar, is no sentimental journey, however.
Filmmaker David Siev
“I finally have the courage to say that Bad Axe is just as much mine as it is anyone else’s who lives or grew up there,” says Siev, the son of Mexican and Cambodian parents who own a popular restaurant in the conservative rural Michigan town.
“As a little brown boy growing up in white, rural, conservative America, I didn't always know how to share my voice,” he adds.
His family, which includes his three sisters, made up part of Bad Axe’s tiny Asian population -- less than 2 percent. Located in Michigan's Thumb, the town has a population of about 3,000 people.
“As a result, I found myself either biting my tongue and getting angry at myself for not speaking out or speaking out of anger and frustration with growing resentment towards others," he says.
All of those reactions, he realizes, were non-productive and do not add to the conversation about being a minority in a rural community.
“I made this film to share my family's story, with love being the motivating factor behind that,” Siev says. “I wanted to share our story because it's an American story.”
The film’s tough love has earned it critical acclaim, including a spot on the short list of documentaries being considered for an Academy Award
in March. The nominees are slated to be announced later this month.
While the critical acclaim has been exciting, Siev is just as moved by the discussion the film has prompted in communities across the country since premiering at the prestigious South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas, last spring.
“I would love to make sure those conversations carry forward to many other communities like Bad Axe,” Siev says. “So starting this year, actually, we're going to be doing community screenings across the U.S. and in towns like Bad Axe, where we can hopefully have more productive dialogue and conversations.
“We were able to get an impact grant from the Ford Foundation,” he says, “which will be used toward setting up these screenings and setting up these dialogues in these small communities.”
The film’s story begins on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic. Siev leaves his New York City home to wait out the pandemic with his family in his childhood home of Bad Axe, where his parents own and operate a popular family restaurant, Rachel's, named after his mother.
What was intended as a safer haven, though, was shaken by some of the community’s conservative rural residents’ resistance to public health mandates for restaurants during the pandemic, and later by unrest as Siev’s minority family joined others to rally for the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.
superintendent of Bad Axe Public Schools from 2002 to 2010 and Siev’s former wrestling coach, attended that rally with his family and former students, and was present during some of the conflict there.
Filmmaker David Siev's "Bad Axe" premiered at his hometown theater in May.
Although he and his wife now split their time between Florida and their new home in southwest Michigan’s Barry County, Wencel says he witnessed some of the community’s reaction to the family and to the film, which was shown at the Bad Axe Theatre over Thanksgiving, and is now streaming on several channels.
Captured in the film itself are the family’s struggles to run a business in the midst of turmoil, dealing with customers angered by mask requirements and armed right wing counter-protestors at the BLM rally.
“ I know there are some people there who probably won't go (to the restaurant) anymore — or that’s what they said,” Wencel says. “There are also some who will say ‘we’ll start going there’ because of how these people live and work and are.
“I know if you go to their restaurant on a Friday night, it's tough to get in,” Wencel says, referring to the eatery's brisk business.
The film captured the climate of the rural community well, aspects that are not unique to Bad Axe, Wencel notes. “That film could have been made in an any rureal area of Michigan,” he says.
owner of The Print Shoppe in Bad Axe, says he found Siev's documentary compelling.
"Bad Axe" was among the films shown at the Freep Film Festival last spring.
“It hit home with me personally on a lot of the issues the film reflected on, especially Covid," Yaroch says. “ I have my own business, which is about 300 yards from Rachel’s, and I felt the pain they endured during the worst pandemic of our lifetime when trying to keep the doors open.
“I personally know all of the Siev family very well,” he says, “and I know that we were all tested to the maximum level with all of the struggles we faced during the pandemic. I believe the film showed that in real time. “
Jo Anne Froelich grew up in Bad Axe and left for Alma College in 1971.
Although she’s not acquainted with the Siev family, she has eaten at their restaurant from time to time. She learned about the documentary about her hometown on social media and watched it with her sister on Amazon Prime.
“Even though (Bad Axe) would be considered pretty much all white, Anglo-Saxon, there are always going to be differences,” Froelich says. “ When I was young it was more about the Catholics versus the Protestants or the east end of town (other side of the tracks) versus the rest of town or the kids who lived in town versus the kids who lived in the country. There were differences and everyone had their own perspective and their own struggles.
“But I always saw Bad Axe as a community who helped each other and looked out for each other,” she says.
A liberal arts college education opened her mind to a lot of new perspectives socially, religiously and politically, as did years of work in Detroit.
“A film like Bad Axe provides an opportunity for people to open up, listen, share, maybe change,” Froelich says. “We are who we are. We don’t all have to be the same, but we’ve probably had similar experiences and struggles and we need to help and respect each other. If you take the time to listen and learn, you may find out that you have more in common than you realize.”
Siev says he has been amazed by the people he has met along the way as his film has raked in awards at film festivals across the country.
“I think the film is a testament to the power not only of our family, but our community as well. Just seeing how this small town of Bad Axe, Michigan — this rural community — has come together to really celebrate the love of my family’s story, I hope that provides a sense of inspiration to maybe other families like my own who have similar experiences living in rural communities.
A Bad Axe image from Siev's documentary.
“I hope that this message of hope and love just continues to spread among audiences and across the country, specifically in rural towns like Bad Axe,” he says.
Seeing how individuals who may have questioned our place in America instead open up their hearts and their minds to the family's experience after watching this film is all he could have asked for, Siev says.
“Our voices matter, and our stories matter. Representation matters,” Siev says on the film’s Facebook page. “Thank you all for helping realize my own American dream.”
Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.